Showing his sensitive side
WHAT’S with Peter Carey? After four days sweltering under an unforgiving sun at Adelaide Writers Week earlier this month, this is the question that occupied my return journey to Sydney. The conundrum is why, at 64 and having achieved an unreasonable degree of success, Carey can’t relax and enjoy himself on his home turf. With 10 novels, two Booker prizes ( Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee is the only other writer to have won twice), a new contentment founded in his relationship with publisher Frances Coady, the sophisticated company of New York’s literary set, the satisfaction of his role as a teacher of creative writing and proximity to the sons he loves, it seems fair to expect the writer to feel comfortable in his own skin.
You may even go a step further and argue he is in a position to take a gracious, even generous attitude to the country of his birth and the people who continue to feed his large imagination. Instead, it’s hard to avoid the sense that, far from ageing gracefully, Carey is embittered by the belief that Australians refuse to recognise his genius, that it’s not enough for the writer to be respected as a literary titan; he must be loved as well.
Carey electrified a capacity festival crowd that had packed into Adelaide’s town hall for what was arguably the key writers week event when he retorted loudly and angrily ‘‘ None of your business!’’ to a question from the floor on why he continued to live in New York, his home for nearly 20 years.
Earlier the same day, his friend and fellow Booker prize- winning novelist Ian McEwan had launched Carey’s new novel, His Illegal Self , in front of another overflowing festival crowd, declaring apropos of nothing in particular, ‘‘ Peter can live anywhere he damned chooses!’’
Now I’m pretty confident 99 per cent of Carey’s Australian readers couldn’t care less about his address. After all, more than one million Australians are living and working overseas, a great many of them in the US. It’s not clear why Carey is so thin- skinned.
Even before arriving in Adelaide I received a phone call from his publishers warning me to expect an earful from Carey during a scheduled interview. Why, I wondered, when Review had given him cover treatment with an interview to mark the novel’s release that left alone the awkward issues of his acrimonious divorce, the accusation by his ex- wife Alison Summers that Carey was guilty of ‘‘ emotional terrorism’’, reported in The Guardian , and Mrs Jekyll, Summers’s unpublished fiction about deception?
As it unfolded, Carey’s irritation concerned a column item in Review ’ s books pages drawing attention to a scathing notice for His Illegal Self in The New York Times. In the event Carey was charming in the interview, but his remarks were revealing. He was guilty, he said, of a ‘‘ horseshit’’ Australian habit. ‘‘ It’s what we do,’’ he said, lunging into a broad Australian accent: ‘‘ It’s OK, mate, I’m just like you, I’m not doing anything really special. I’m like a bricklayer, putting down a chapter a day . . .’’
He attributed the muted critical response in Australia to his latest fiction to laziness on the part of local reviewers. Referring back to the main reviews for his 2001 novel True History of the Kelly Gang , he claimed that none had actually reviewed the book. ‘‘ None of them really understood there was some language that had been created that had never existed in Australian literature before. Not one. Everyone reviewed the Kelly gang, the history of the Kelly gang, what they knew about the Kelly gang. They didn’t know very much about it, so they didn’t even know what I’d done with it.’’
As if recruited to Carey’s defence, McEwan, in his remarks launching His Illegal Self , praised its language, in particular the voice Carey had found for his eight- year- old American character Che, a child lost in place and time.
McEwan read from an effusive review in The New Yorker in which critic James Wood describes ‘‘ Carey’s often beautiful novel’’ as ‘‘ one of his best recent works’’. His Illegal Self , writes Wood, shares ‘‘ the bruising tang of all his fiction, in which crooked colloquialism and poetic formality combine’’. The result brilliantly vital: the world bulges out of sentences’’. Now that’s more like it.
As he has aged, Carey told John Freeman in the interview published in Review on Australia Day, he has become less interested in satire and more interested in language: ‘‘( In) The Kelly Gang I aspired to make a poetry out of an unlettered voice, and ever since I’ve been obsessed with bending, snapping and reshaping sentences.’’ So it’s not hard to see that a review of His Illegal Self in this month’s Australian Book Review , in which editor Peter Rose expresses surprise at ‘‘ the flatness of Carey’s prose’’, may have pierced his ego.
‘‘ It is hard to become excited about Peter Carey’s new novel, and that is a hard notion to entertain,’’ Rose writes.
Reviewing His Illegal Self for The Weekend Australian in January, Liam Davison acclaimed Carey’s ‘‘ masterful de- familiarisation of the Australian experience’’. He lamented that Carey had not written a different novel, however, one that exploited ‘‘ more fully the narrative potential of the hotbed of US radicalism’’. Referring to the mother figure who flees the US with Che, only to end up at a flyblown Queensland commune, Davison concluded: ‘‘ One shares Dial’s exasperation at the sheer absurdity of the place she has found herself in when important things are happening ‘‘ is the elsewhere.’’ The Sydney Morning Herald ’ s Andrew Riemer found the novel ‘‘ a quirky, at times brilliant, sometimes heartless historical fantasia’’ that relies on Carey’s ‘‘ narrative wizardry’’ rather than tugging at heartstrings.
By removing the action of His Illegal Self from the US to Queensland early in the novel and staying put, Carey was firmly in ‘‘ Miles Franklin territory’’, Riemer sniped, a reference to Australia’s biggest literary prize, a bauble Carey has won three times.
My reading is that despite His Illegal Self ’ s often sublime language ( on the magpie’s cry: ‘‘ Who was it said like an angel gargling in a crystal vase?’’) and Carey’s beautiful evocation of the fractured bond between Che and Dial, structural flaws in the narrative leave too many questions unanswered.
Theo Tait makes the same observation reviewing the novel in a recent London Review of Books . Just at the point at which Dial spirits Che away to Queensland, Tait writes, ‘‘ the reader starts to ask questions to which there are no good answers’’.
According to Carey, there has not been ‘‘ much fabulous reading of the book’’ by Australian critics. It’s conceivable that the novel is just not that fabulous.
review@ theaustralian. com. au